America, the Holocaust, and the Abandonment of the Jews

By Medoff, Rafael | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

America, the Holocaust, and the Abandonment of the Jews


Medoff, Rafael, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


"We will not see a better book on this subject in our lifetime," Leonard Dinnerstein wrote in 1985 of David S. Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. (1) It also seems likely we will not see a better-received and more influential book on the subject. The hundreds of reviews, both scholarly and popular, were almost unanimously positive. Abandonment won the Bernath Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Saloutos Award of the Immigration History Society, the Ansfield-Wolf Award, and the National Jewish Book Award, among others. It went through seven hardcover printings and a paperback edition, as well as editions in German, French, Hebrew, and Polish, selling a total of more than 150,000 copies worldwide. Abandonment even reached the New York Times best-seller list for five weeks in the spring of 1985--an unusual achievement for a book about the Holocaust--and was later chosen by the Times as one of the eleven "Best Books of 1985."

What accounts for the extraordinary success and impact of The Abandonment of the Jews? The twentieth anniversary of its publication provides an opportunity to assess Abandonment's place in the historiography of America and the Holocaust, its influence on public perceptions of how the United States responded to the Nazi genocide, the reasons why Abandonment has had so much greater an impact than other books on the subject, and the direction of future research on responses to the Holocaust.

Abandonment was unique in many respects, even though it was not the first book to address the question of America's response to Nazism and the Holocaust. It brought to light a number of important episodes that had not been explored, or had not been fully explored, by the six other books that had appeared prior to the publication of Abandonment in late 1984. These episodes included, most notably, the Roosevelt administration's refusal to bomb Auschwitz and the events leading to the creation of the War Refugee Board. Wyman drew extensively on archival sources that had been unavailable to earlier scholars, in particular the diaries of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Abandonment also included a frank examination of the role of the American Jewish community in the shaping of U.S. policy toward European Jewry. Moreover, it presented a broad, complete picture of America's response to the Holocaust; instead of focusing exclusively on the White House and the State Department, Wyman also brought in the responses of Congress, the media, and the relevant sectors of the public. He showed how the interaction of these many factors contributed to the evolution of U.S. decision-making with regard to Hitler's massacres. As Professor Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, remarked: "This book ties everything together, brings it up to date and makes the best of use of the State Department and War Department material on that period." (2) Despite its broad scope, Abandonment was remarkably readable, which further set it apart from other books on the topic. Finally, the fact that Wyman is a Christian gave him a uniquely interesting perspective on the subject matter, which the book's publisher emphasized on the dust jacket, correctly surmising that readers would find it intriguing.

I. Contemporary Historiography

The contemporary historiography of America's response to the Holocaust begins with the publication, in 1968, of two landmark books: While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, by the journalist Arthur D. Morse, and Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941, by David S. Wyman, then a young historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Morse was the first author to charge the Roosevelt administration with having deliberately obstructed opportunities for rescuing Jews from Hitler. The novelty of the subject matter was part of the reason for the substantial attention it attracted, including advance excerpts in Look magazine and a lengthy article in the New York Times four months before the book was published by Random House. …

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